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Old tools on a wooden table

Accessibility is in the Eye of the Beholder:

A Case Study of Major Mark Campbell

Sometimes, planning a project for accessibility requires more than just following codes and guidelines. Here’s a look at an accessibility project that Robert and I are currently involved in.

The homeowner, Major Mark Campbell, lost his legs while serving overseas in the military in Afghanistan. Although, his home was designed and built to accommodate Mark and his family, there were a few key issues in his home that caused a lot of stress during his day to day activities. Robert and I were called in to see what we could come up with to solve these problems.

The Shower

The original shower design called for a tiled room with a rain shower head for the family and a hand shower and tile bench for Mark. In theory, the design was good, but the implementation left results that made showering a chore for Mark. Let’s look at some of the problem areas.

The Issues

The first key problem area was the tile bench. The bench went from wall to wall, meaning that any water accumulating on the bench would run towards the corners and on to the tile floor…except that the water coming off the left hand side of the bench would flow right over the peak of the threshold of the shower floor and spill out into the bathroom area, leaving a huge puddle in the middle of the bathroom floor. Left alone, this water could potentially cause a lot of damage to other parts of the bathroom.

As well as allowing water to flow out of the shower area, the bench posed another issue for Mark. The bench, being made of tile, became really slippery with soap on it. In Mark’s own words, “When I lather up, I have to hang on for dear life or I could end up slipping right off the bench on to the floor.” In addition, there weren’t any grab bars in strategic locations to provide a good hand hold in case things did get a little slippery.

The next key problem area was the hand shower. As Mark noted, when the water was off, he could adjust the hand shower to sit in the cradle so that the shower head would be pointing directly at him. When he turned the water on, however, the pressure of the water would force the hand shower to change position. The stream of water wouldn’t be directly on him, but out the door instead. The issue here would be that he would start to get cold because he wasn’t getting any warm water directed at him. Constantly fighting with the shower head was not only a pain, but combined with the slippery bench we talked about earlier, made showering a harrowing experience for Mark.

The last key problem with the shower was the shower floor itself. This can be broken into two areas, which, on their own, might not have been an issue. Together, they caused some problems. The drain wasn’t located in the center of the floor and the threshold to the shower wasn’t of an adequate slope. This meant that the water didn’t drain properly. Not a big deal if you like pools of water on your bathroom floor, but it was unacceptable. The drain needed to be moved and the tile floor needed to be torn out and re-sloped.

Without a doubt, something needed to be done to fix these problems. The shower was an accident waiting to happen, both in terms of Mark potentially falling and hurting himself and water damage to the bathroom area.

The Solution

The first thing that Robert and I did was have a sit down with Mark and discuss how we were going to tackle the problems with his shower. Mark’s input was really important to the process of getting this project underway, because his needs weren’t being met and he is the only person who knows what those needs are. With the Occupational Therapist report in hand, Robert got into the shower with Mark and together, they acted out the process of taking a shower, making notes and taking measurements that would aid in coming up with an ideal solution. Acting out the process of taking a shower, although not a perfect representation of what Mark has to go through, is a key component of what we do to try to marry our knowledge of construction with our clients’ needs.

The next step was the demolition. I spent the better part of a day tearing out the floor tiles, the bench, and the wall tiles, all the while trying to leave the ceiling tiles and fixtures intact. Through the process of demolishing the shower, I discovered that the construction of the shower was really well made. The framing looked solid and the waterproofing membrane (Schluter’s kerdi products) were correctly installed. We added some additional framing to support some grab bars that we would install later and our plumber relocated the drain to the center of the shower area.

After that, Our tile setter took over. A quick meeting with him and Mark came up with the idea of adding a niche in the wall for shampoo bottles. Cement board was put back on the walls and the shower floor was sloped using dry pack mortar. The threshold was also extended out a little further and sloped better in order to keep the water in the shower area. The waterproof membrane was then reapplied. New tile was put on the floor and walls that matched the original tile and once the whole thing was grouted we were ready to put in some fixtures and hardware.

The fixtures were fairly easy to install. The rain shower that the family used wasn’t being replaced, but before the cement board went on the walls, we moved it up about 6 inches, mainly because it was only sitting at about 6 feet off the ground. The old hand shower was thrown out, and we replaced in with a combination hand shower/grab bar that could be positioned in many ways an then locked so it doesn’t move. We added some grab bars on either side of where the new bench would be positioned and reinstalled the shower curtain bar.

The final piece that brought the whole project together was the folding shower bench that we imported from the United States. Although it took a really long time for us to get the product, the bench turned out to be really cool. A lot of shower benches have a hospital feel to them, often made of metal and plastic. This one has the look of wood and folds up really easily when not in use. The bench itself is doesn’t span from wall to wall, allowing for water to drain nicely into the shower drain. Mark also told us that it was a lot easier to sit on than the old slippery tile bench.

Final Notes

Everyone involved in this project can probably agree that the final result was satisfying, but getting to that final result was a long process…much longer than a typical bathroom remodel. Some of that can attributed to waiting on funding for the project, but some of it is also due to uncertainties. Although there are official guidelines on accessibility in homes, in Mark’s case, these guidelines didn’t meet his needs. A closer look at those needs led us to spending time researching and looking for solutions. A lot of contractors would not be interested in leaving their comfort zones to attempt to approach some of these problems and quite honestly, there were times when we were unsure if this project would get off the ground. However, with some patience, careful planning, and effort, we managed to make one person’s daily routine a lit bit easier. Hopefully, this experience will help us to help others with their renovation needs.

Robert and I would like to give thanks to Major Mark Campbell for allowing us to use his full name in this story. Without his valued input and approval, this story would remain jumbled thoughts in my head. In a future article, we’ll look at the other half of Mark’s home renovation project: A wheelchair ramp.

If you’re in the Greater Edmonton area and are looking for a contractor for you renovation project, visit our website at www.nordalta.com/contact.php to find information on how to contact us. We’d be happy to speak to you about what we can do to get the ball rolling on your next home or office project. You can also leave comments with us at info@nordalta.com.

Robert Breault is the president and owner of Nord Alta Construction. You can find the company website at www.nordalta.com. You can also find Robert and Nord Alta Construction on facebook at www.facebook.com/NordAltaContruction and on LinkedIn.

Michael Breault is a project coordinator for Nord Alta Construction. You can find the company website at www.nordalta.com. You can also find Michael and Nord Atla Construction on facebook at www.facebook.com/NordAltaConstruction, on twitter at www.twitter.com/Nordalta, and on LinkedIn.